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The Fine Art of the Midlife Makeover

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Betsy Conlan

Betsy Conlan knows numbers. The Wilmington resident graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She went on to earn a master’s degree in accounting and a 4.0 GPA. For nearly 30 years, she made her living in the field. But doing what comes naturally—and the 9-to-5 that came with it—didn’t make her happy. “I hated it with every bone in my body,” she says.

After some soul searching, Conlan at age 55 opened Creative Life Coaching, which uses creativity to help clients achieve goals and overcome obstacles in their personal and professional lives.

With the new business, which she started in 2016, Conlan is putting a priority on her own needs. “I was just plain tired of doing what I had to do and what was expected of me,” she says. “I had so many unexplored interests, and I began to resent my job as something that was standing in the way of what I wanted to do.”

It was a long time coming. As a child, Conlan—a nearly lifelong Delawarean—wanted to be an astronaut or Olivia Newton-John. While at Ursuline Academy, she realized that her vision wouldn’t pass NASA’s criteria, and her singing wouldn’t land a recording contract. Her teachers encouraged her to pursue science.

She decided that if she couldn’t ride in a spaceship, then she’d design one. She entered the University of Delaware as an engineering major. There was just one problem. “I wasn’t actually that interested in science,” she says.

She broke the good girl mold and dropped out of college to work at the Mill Store, a fabric retailer, where she reconciled the daily sales and made bank deposits. Accounting came easy to her, so she returned to UD to get her degrees. After graduation, she rose through the ranks in the accounting departments of major utility companies. She also taught accounting at Goldey-Beacom College.

As the single mom of two children, she needed to pay the bills and set the standard for responsible adulthood. “Whenever I was faced with an important decision,” she says, “I would ask myself: ‘What’s best for the kids?’ or “What will my actions teach the kids?’”

Nevertheless, Conlan found ways to satisfy her creative streak. She taught piano, and in the early 2000s, she earned a certificate in interior design from the Delaware College of Art and Design. Unfortunately, the start of her business, Rockford Design Studio, coincided with the recession. While trying to get the business off the ground, she managed the finances for her church.

She closed her design business in 2010, but she wasn’t ready to give up on her dream—and in 2009, she’d remarried. She and her husband, Brad, took a pottery class, and she found that being creative helped her think outside the box and solve problems.

She got a life coach, then decided to become one. After being certified by the International Coach Foundation, she quit her job at the church and started her business. She now offers workshops, one-on-one coaching and online creativity development training. “I want to help others who want to reinvent themselves after years of identifying as a mom, an employee or as a person who has always done what they’re supposed to do,” she says. “It can be painful and difficult to get up every day and wonder if there is more to life.”

Granted, change isn’t easy. “It requires you to do new things and to think in new ways,” she says. Be prepared for surprises. Conlan misses the numbers that once dominated her life. She’s looking for a way to keep a hand in the accounting world while still being a coach. But this time, it will be on her terms.

Valerie Helmbreck

At age 55, Betsy Conlan left her accounting career to open Creative Life Coaching.//Luigi Ciuffetelli

“France for me is freedom from the expectations that
have defined my life for decades,” she says. “I accepted
these expectations willingly, but now I am allowing
myself choices that I did not have for a very long time.”//
Luigi Ciuffetelli

Valerie Helmbreck was about 19 when she first flew to Paris with her mother, sister and their friends. Two hours after takeoff, the man sitting behind her died. The flight continued with the corpse laid out on the aircraft. Upon arrival, the plane was held up on the tarmac while TWA and French officials argued about the right of the dead man’s family to enter France.

Some might call it a bad omen. Not Helmbreck, who spoke enough French to understand what was going on. “These, I somehow knew, were my people. Pissing off self-important people was their strong suit.”

Her ardor for France only increased. She loved the Metro, the food and the French cigarettes. She admired the Parisians’ insistence upon using the correct form of address and greeting the shopkeeper upon entering a store. She learned how to tie a scarf and to never order café au lait after dinner or whiskey before. She didn’t mind dodging dog turds on the city streets.

Helmbreck was at home in France, but she could not make it her home—not then. Back in the United States, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in journalism at the University of Delaware. She built a successful career at The News Journal, including a stint as a food writer. (Her restaurant reviews, with their stinging wit, would have pleased the French.) She married Al Mascitti, also a journalist, and they had three children.

In 1997, Helmbreck left journalism for the DuPont Company, and in 2001, she started a marketing communications business.

It all came crashing down in January 2005, when she suffered a serious stroke. For five months, she underwent physical, speech and occupational therapy in a rehabilitation hospital. (She would suffer three more strokes, one of which left her nearly deaf in one ear.) Back on her feet, Helmbreck became a senior editor at a publishing company.

In 2013, the woman who’d once needed care became a serial caretaker. She looked after a close friend with no family who was dying after suffering a stroke and bone infection. Then her son had a ruptured spinal arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal tangle of blood vessels on, in or near the spinal cord. She spent five weeks in Arizona with him while he underwent multiple surgeries.

Then her mother entered hospice. After she died in 2015, Helmbreck became the caregiver for her blind father. Emotionally worn out, she organized a trip to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a network of pilgrims’ ways to the shrine of apostle St. James. The pilgrimage gave her the renewed strength to care of her father, who died in March 2017.

Helmbreck, once an optimist, was shaken. “After my father died, after the election of 2016, after seeing too much illness and pain and struggle in the people I love, my well of optimism ran dry,” she says. “My heart was broken.” When Helmbreck gets sad, she says, she gets mad. “I wasn’t a very nice person to be with or be around.”

Then came the video from her friend Nathalie, in France, who was holding a tray of shellfish. “Valerie, you have to come,” Nathalie implored in English. “The crustaces doesn’t wait.” The verb tense was incorrect, but the sentiment behind the clever phrase was classic Nathalie, Helmbreck says.

Helmbreck booked a flight, rented the house next to Nathalie in Brittany and spent most of the summer there. Back in America, she lasted three weeks. “I was keenly aware of how relieved I’d felt in France and how overwhelmed by grief and anxiety I was in America,” she says.

Helmbreck, who’d lost much of her French after her first stroke, enrolled in an immersion program in Paris and rented an apartment. Though she misses her husband, children and grandchildren, she feels energized in France and motivated to write. Her Facebook posts have a rapt audience.

“France for me is freedom from the expectations that have defined my life for decades,” she says. “I accepted these expectations willingly, but now I am allowing myself choices that I did not have for a very long time.”

Nathalie was right, Helmbreck concludes—the crustaces doesn’t wait.

John C. McVoy III

McVoy received a master’s—of divinity from Pope St. John
XXIII National Seminary, in Weston, Massachusetts—and
was ordained in 2010. He is assistant pastor at St. Mary’s
and St. Patrick’s in Wilmington and at Cathedral of St.
Peter, where he lives.//Luigi Ciuffetelli

 L ife can change in an instant. John C. McVoy III learned that firsthand on Jan. 7, 2004, when his wife, Bethlhem Kebede, suffered a fatal heart attack while undergoing a stress test in a doctor’s office. She was just 50.

While kneeling by her casket, the fifth-generation Roman Catholic suddenly both felt and heard a presence telling him to enter the priesthood. It would not be easy. Not only is he a single parent with three children, but at the time, there were no African-American priests in Delaware.

McVoy grew up in Paducah, Kentucky. His parents were academicians who met at Tennessee State University, and McVoy inherited their love of learning. He earned a chemistry degree from Howard University in 1979 and studied environmental toxicology at Florida A&M University. That isn’t all. He studied personnel and human resources management at University of La Verne, voice at Florida State University and business at University of the District of Columbia.

McVoy also inherited polycystic kidney disease, which was diagnosed in 1980 when his blood pressure soared. Treatment helped, but there is no cure for the genetic disorder. In 1999, McVoy needed a kidney transplant. His younger sister, Lynette, was the donor. He’s now a spokesperson for the Gift of Life Donor Program and often speaks on what life is like after a transplant.

McVoy met Bethlhem, who was born in Ethiopia, at Howard University and they had three children: Aklecia, Salem and Yohannes. The family moved to Wilmington in 1998. McVoy, a senior chemist and senior project manager, oversaw chemists and data managers who reviewed information from DuPont Company plant sites that were under remediation.

In Wilmington, he and Bethlhem were dedicated to Sacred Heart Oratory. In 2001, McVoy entered the permanent diaconate formation program in the Diocese of Wilmington. (Permanent deacons can be married and have jobs outside the church.) In 2001, Bethlhem opened Café Abyssinia in the Ministry of Caring’s Sacred Heart Village.

McVoy’s calling after her death was met with some resistance—not only because he was a single parent, but also because of his skin color. As a priest, McVoy—who has lived all over the country—has never felt as strong of a rejection as in his adopted home of Wilmington. “I was told, ‘You don’t know your place,’” he says. “I just want to serve the people of faith.”

McVoy is nothing short of determined. “You don’t become a strong African-American male and survive and be treated with respect unless you’re strong enough to handle the onslaught of everyone wanting to take you down,” he says. He’s had good examples. His parents overcame obstacles during segregation to each earn master’s degrees.

McVoy also received a master’s—of divinity from Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, in Weston, Massachusetts—and was ordained in 2010. He is assistant pastor at St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s in Wilmington and at Cathedral of St. Peter, where he lives. He’s a familiar sight around Quaker Hill, where he gives food to the homeless. He is also  hospital chaplain at Christiana Care Health System and a member of the New Castle County Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

In 2013, he was the first chaplain appointed by New Castle County Paramedics to the Emergency Medical Services Division. That year, he was called to the hospital when Wilmington police officer Justin Wilkers was shot in the face. “I was talking to him, anointing him and being with him,” McVoy recalls. Wilkers lived.

Eight months later, a heroin addict stopped him as he walked across West Street. She wanted to talk about her son, who’d been arrested for shooting a police officer—Wilkers. Sobbing, she told McVoy that she was trying to get off drugs. It was too late, however, to help her son. “This is the essence of what is happening in Wilmington,” says McVoy, who wants the church to do more out in the community to make a difference.

Life can change in an instant, but for now he’s where he wants to be. “I just feel like there’s more that I can do,” he says of his vocation. “There’s more.”

Rita Poore

Rita Poore took her first painting class after age 55. Today, she is a professional artist whose work has appeared
in juried exhibitions.//Luigi Ciuffetelli​

As the manager of creative services departments at television stations around the country, Rita Poore racked up an impressive number of Emmy, Clio and other industry awards. Her strength was what industry insiders now call “brand management.” It was not, she says, her artistic skills.

While working at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, she felt artists roll their eyes when the team met to discuss ideas for ads. “Here she comes again, drawing those stick figures,” she imagined them whispering. “I thought, I guess I can’t draw, and I don’t have any talent.”

She was wrong. Today, Poore is a professional artist whose work has appeared in juried exhibitions at the Biggs Museum of American Art and the Rehoboth Art League. Her paintings have hung in galleries as far south as Key West, where the Rehoboth Beach resident has a home. It’s a remarkable career for a fine artist who didn’t take a class until after age 55.

Poore was born in New Castle, Indiana. From Tombstone, Arizona, to Pittsburgh, the family frequently moved for her father’s job with Alcoa. Her mother was artistic but didn’t encourage Poore to cultivate her talent. Instead of taking art classes, Poore played clarinet in the school band.

After earning a degree in telecommunications from Indiana University, she worked at stations in Louisville, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. “It was exciting working with Oprah at the beginning of her career, shooting with Christopher Lee in London and working with various sports stars,” she recalls. One of her first shoots in Baltimore was with Cal Ripken during his rookie year.

In 1991, she began freelancing as a writer, producer and director for networks such as Discovery, SyFy and The Learning Channel. In 1996, at the age of 40, she wed Wayne “D” D’Ambrosio, who had grown up summering along the Delaware coast. They bought a vacation home in Rehoboth on the bay side, and on weekends drove in from their Washington residence. Life was good.

Then, on New Year’s Eve in 2006, her husband was in a scooter accident in Key West. He was airlifted to Miami, where he spent six weeks in a coma. The couple decided to stay in Delaware while he recuperated. Six months later, he was back at work in D.C., and Poore spent the bulk of her time in Rehoboth.

One year later, their Rehoboth house suffered major damage in a fire, caused by a faulty fuel-injection system in a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, which they’d kept in the adjoining garage.

Between her husband’s recovery period and the rebuilding, Poore was out of circulation in the TV world, which had changed. “My age, experience and day rate basically took me out of the market,” she says.

Consequently, she was open to trying new things. In 2009, a friend asked her to take a painting class. Her job in TV had given her an eye for light and color. Hooked from the start, she began taking classes and attending workshops in Rehoboth and Key West. The sale of a few pieces built her confidence.

Along with friends, she founded Atlantic Visual Artists, a group of artists who meet weekly to paint and hold workshops, one of which featured Sean Callahan of Dog Tired Studio and Gallery in Key West. He stayed at Poore’s home, where he spotted abstract paintings in her studio. Callahan had only seen her representational work. “He walked around and said, ‘I can sell this,’” she recalls. He organized a show for her in his gallery. “It was a thrill.”

The first small successes gave her the confidence to tell people that she is an artist. “Sometimes, it still surprises me to either hear it said or for me to say it out loud,” she says. She needn’t worry. The proof is in the painting.

David and Cindy Small

In 2015, Cindy retired as executive director of Kent County Tourism. In 2017, David stepped down as secretary of the
Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Both have since taken new jobs.//Luigi 
Ciuffetelli

From the start, David and Cindy Small had a lot in common. They were both Delmarva natives. He grew up in Pocomoke City. She was raised in Lewes. “Our families were very similar,” she says. “We had a lot of the same interests. We both liked to go to junk stores and antiques stores. He was raised around that, and so was I.”

When they met at the Delaware Coast Press, she was a news editor, and he was a reporter. The next three decades would prove that they’re also adept at finding new career opportunities.

In 2015, Cindy retired as the executive director of Kent County Tourism. In 2017, David stepped down as secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. But this Kent County couple aren’t ready for retirement. They’re both in new jobs that expand their considerable skill sets.

Cindy was divorced with a small child when she met David. “I had no intention of dating anyone,” she says. They became close friends when she was the general manager and executive editor. The friendship, however, turned to romance, and they wed. The couple remained in the industry, working for a time at different publications, but their combined income wasn’t enough to finance a home and raise two children. “Bylines are nice, but they’re hard to cash,” Cindy says.

She took a pay cut to enter the marketing department of a hospital, realizing there was more income potential in the long run. David became head of the information office at DNREC. “I went from observing and reporting to translating, often for the media and the public on all manner of issues,” he says. “I had the run of every nook and cranny at DNREC, which helped shape my career.”

Evidently so, for he was promoted to executive assistant and then appointed the secretary. “I think my skill sets served me well in the policy arena and working with the General Assembly,” he says.

Cindy, meanwhile, put her knowledge of Sussex County to good use as the executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism. She was then recruited to the Kent County Tourism Corp. “I felt like I could go to work every day and there was a new project to start and something creative to do,” she says. “I loved it.”

She had barely retired in 2015 when she received a call about a job opening at the University of Delaware’s Small Business Development Center. Initially, she was responsible for helping businesses identify and prepare for risks such as weather events, the loss of key staff, systems failures, data loss and cybersecurity threats, utilities and power interruption and the loss of premises—a program that was started in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Today, Cindy—who now works part time—is a business adviser. “I have a mix of clients from startups, to I-want-to-get-started to I’ve-been-in-business.” She’s learned much from those who’ve been in the center for decades. “I’ve been like a sponge, absorbing anything I can. I have notebooks full of notes,” she says.

Like his wife, David didn’t let grass grow under his feet. At 59, he says, he was too young to retire. “I still have gas in the tank.” In 2017, he took a position with Duffield Associates, an environmental engineering firm. “It’s a big transition,” says David, who spent 30 years at DNREC. The issues are the same, but now he sees them from a different perspective. “There’s a lot to learn, just the aspects of running a business. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I underestimated it.”

When it comes to work, if you feel you have something to contribute then do it, says Cindy, who plans to sell antiques and collectibles as her next venture. “I subscribe to rusting out before burning out,” she says.

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